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The Cognitive Integration of E-Memory


If we are flexible, hybrid and unfinished creatures that tend to incorporate or at least employ technological artefacts in our cognitive lives, then the sort of technological regime we live under should shape the kinds of minds we possess and the sorts of beings we are. E-Memory consists in digital systems and services we use to record, store and access digital memory traces to augment, re-use or replace organismic systems of memory. I consider the various advantages of extended and embedded approaches to cognition in making sense of E-Memory and some of the problems that debate can engender. I also explore how the different approaches imply different answers to questions such as: does our use of internet technology imply the diminishment of ourselves and our cognitive abilities? Whether or not our technologies can become actual parts of our minds, they may still influence our cognitive profile. I suggest E-Memory systems have four factors: totality, practical cognitive incorporability, autonomy and entanglement which conjointly have a novel incorporation profile and hence afford some novel cognitive possibilities. I find that thanks to the properties of totality and incorporability we can expect an increasing reliance on E-Memory. Yet the potentially highly entangled and autonomous nature of these technologie pose questions about whether they should really be counted as proper parts of our minds.

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  1. 1.

    In fact both Menary’s and Sutton’s texts were in circulation much earlier in the community: a version of Sutton’s text being presented in 2001 and circulated in draft from 2005. For an early discussion of related themes see Sutton (2003).

  2. 2.

    To use Andy Clark’s label (from Clark 2008) to refer to outlooks that hold that mind cannot extent into the world beyond the brain.

  3. 3.

    Adam & Aizawa’s argument on memory focuses on organic memory having a particular fine-grained functional profile implementing features such as recency and priming effects. Extended memory systems are very unlikely to have similar functional profiles to organic systems at very fine-grained levels but this seems unlikely to be a decisive point; see arguments in Clark (2008) and discussion of the complementarity principle (see Section 3 below)

  4. 4.

    Although the notion of cognitive technology is in itself contentious I hope not to beg any questions by using it here. Cognitive technology for these purposes might be thought of as any technology which we make extensive use of in tasks considered cognitive. I discuss the matter further here: (Clowes 2012)

  5. 5.

    Lifelogging is the movement among heavy users of digital media to attempt to produce a total digital capture of one’s life with digital recording devices, more or less as life happens, e.g. (Bell & Gemmell, 2009; Kalnikaite et al. 2010; Sellen and Whittaker 2010). I will return to this in a moment in discussion of the E-Memory property of totality.

  6. 6.

    If not in the context of the specific experiments cited here.

  7. 7.

    For the purposes of this article we will treat episodic and autobiographical systems as doing much the same job, whereas, more precisely episodic memory is construed as the capacity to consciously remember episodes in one’s life, whereas autobiographical memory is construed as dealing with knowledge of one’s life more generally including certain kinds of semantic knowledge (such as one’s date of birth or nationality). In fact the exact definition of autobiographical memory is something of a moving target (Hoerl 2007). I will have a little more to say about this distinction in the discussion of totality below.

  8. 8.

    In that paper it was just termed incorporability.

  9. 9.

    See the discussion of cognitive dovetailing in Clark (2003)

  10. 10.

    Indeed Heersmink analysis—in the same 2012 paper—of artefact/organism interactions into different levels of information flows appears to be compatible with the approach to different densities of interaction developed here.

  11. 11.

    To be clear terms like cognitive instrument, cognitive technology or even cognitive interaction are not supposed to imply that said instruments, technologies or interactions are necessarily part of anyone’s mind. They can be thought of as merely having important cognitive implications in the way that technologies were analysed for example in Hutchins (1995). None of this is supposed to beg the question against the HEMC theorist.

  12. 12.

    The complementarity principle is first coined in Sutton (2010) as a sort of antidote to the parity principle’s (Clark and Chalmers 1998) tendency to too strictly make novel cognitive technologies need to conform to prior organic cognitive systems. The parity principle is discussed in detail in Section 4.

  13. 13.

    Related inferences are drawn by Smart (2012)

  14. 14.

    The system is modelled on a next generation version of MyLifeBits as presented in Bell & Gemmell (2009); for further discussion see Clowes (2012).

  15. 15.

    This discussion in part re-iterates points made by some of those theorizing a “second wave” approach to the extended mind (Menary 2010; Sutton 2010) where—as we have seen—the emphasis is placed on understanding the dynamics of potential new cognitive systems and what is distinctive about them. As Sutton (2010, p. 41) wrote “in extended cognitive systems, external states and processes need not mimic or replicate the formats, dynamics, or functions of inner states and processes”. Insofar as the ontological discussion tends to obscure this sort of investigation then it will tend to block understanding of the new “kinds of minds” we may be developing.

  16. 16.

    NB—I have slightly amended these so they can be applied to technologies more generally rather than specifically referring to Otto’s notebook.

  17. 17.

    One factor that may count against this is that software companies may sometimes upgrade their software in ways that disturb a user’s pattern of smooth use, at least whilst one is adjusting to a new interface (Thanks to Ron Chrisley in personal communication for pointing this out). Personal experience of upgrades in Microsoft Office mean I tend to put off using upgraded software when working on important projects. Nevertheless the general tendency does seem toward more user-friendly gadgetry.

  18. 18.

    In the technical sense of not feeling ourselves to be the owner of those thoughts (Campbell 2002).

  19. 19.

    For instance, Carr claims that internet reading is necessarily disrupting and diffuse, but it is difficult to see why the use of a specialised reading device like the Kindle—already in mass usage—may not be invented that could switch off hyperlinks when needed (an easy way to facilitate internet reading?). In principle web content need not be much more distracting and dissipating than reading a book. It is possible to imagine the construction of web-reading software or hardware which might minimize the tendency of this technology to distract us.

  20. 20.

    For Carr the mass of internet users (and particularly the so-called digital natives who have never known any other kind of intellectual culture), it is simply as though our minds are bleeding away in the machines leaving us as almost sub-human Eloi. In fact the science fiction writer Dan Simmons (Simmons 2010) develops just such a Wellsian scenario in his book Ilium. In the book the semantic memory of human beings has atrophied to the point that they know almost nothing. They rely almost entirely on a future internet to browse whatever facile knowledge they need.

  21. 21.

    One argument in favour of the HEC outlook is that it allows us to recognise more interesting systems and regularities in the world than can be recognised by HEMC theories. Theorists who really insist in confining their attentions to the cognitive operations of the brain may find themselves restricted to the analysis of increasingly partial cognitive systems as we practically incorporate E-Memory technologies.

  22. 22.

    No pun intended.


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Robert Clowes would like to express his thanks to three anonymous reviewers and especially the editors John Sutton and Kourken Michaelian whose insights over several drafts of this paper much contributed to the paper’s scope and hopefully interest; their thoughtful comments have also given its author food for thought for future work. Of course its remaining failings are my responsibility alone. The author would also like to gratefully acknowledge a Portuguese Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia grant/BPD/70440/2010 that supported writing this paper.

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Clowes, R.W. The Cognitive Integration of E-Memory. Rev.Phil.Psych. 4, 107–133 (2013).

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  • Parity Principle
  • Cognitive Agent
  • Proper Part
  • Organic Memory
  • Transactive Memory